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Courthouse art could be moved to new positions


Under a plan that would bring sweeping changes to the appearance of Baltimore's federal courthouse, a forgotten statue of Thurgood Marshall would take center stage while another more controversial sculpture would be moved to a shady corner.

That's the opinion of a panel of architects who met over the past two days to overhaul the entrance to the Garmatz federal courthouse, the hulking concrete structure on Lombard Street that houses the U.S. District Court.

The proposed design change moves "Baltimore Federal," a piece of multicolored metal art that has long been a brunt of jokes, sneers and scorn. Prompting the relocation are worries about security, more convenient handicapped parking and aesthetics.

In place of the existing semicircle brick driveway leading to the building entrance, the four-member panel yesterday recommended that a grassy, park-like pedestrian plaza be built in front of the building to eliminate "confusion and chaos" and to establish a sense of a "town common."

Inside, the experts suggested that a new lobby could showcase an 8-foot, 7-inch bronze statue of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, owned by the city. The likeness of Justice Marshall, by local sculptor Reuben Kramer, now stands almost unnoticed along Pratt Street with its back to the flow of traffic.

"Baltimore Federal" would move from the courthouse front to the new grassy knoll of the pedestrian plaza.

"I feel that this approach will establish a sense of dignity and historic presence and allow the usefulness of the building to be achieved," said Susan Child, a landscape architect from Cambridge, Mass., who headed the panel.

At the same time, General Services Administration curator Alicia Weber said the structure will be reconditioned and repainted.

The architects, hired by the GSA, which operates the Garmatz building, and representatives of the National Endowment for the Arts spent two days soliciting opinions on the building's function from federal judges, U.S. marshals, the chief federal public defender and other employees who work there.

Their report -- and recommendation -- must be reviewed by regional GSA officials in Philadelphia.

If approved by Philadelphia, funding for the redesign would be sought from Congress, which could come up with the money as early as 1997, said Anja Levitties, the GSA's regional fine arts director.

Rough sketches of the new entrance also include three spaces for disabled parking on Lombard Street, enclosing exterior "porches" of the building to allow for a larger lobby and grading a steep slope with rocks and creeping ivy ground cover along Hanover Street to create the pedestrian plaza.

But the most controversial change would be the move of "Baltimore Federal" -- the entwined modern archway of red, blue, yellow and green metal that has been criticized by judges, attorneys and other federal employees as undignified ever since its placement in the courtyard 20 years ago.

Moving the sculpture to a new location at the courthouse, which occupies an entire city block, is a diplomatic solution, U.S. District Judges Ben E. Legg and J. Frederick Motz agreed yesterday. "There's no magic to the location of the present sculpture," Judge Legg said.

Added Judge Motz: "Surrounded with greenery, it could be a very pleasing concept."

George Sugarman, 83, the sculptor who created the artwork, said he also may welcome a move of his sculpture. "I like the idea of a grassy area, it's more hospitable and the colors would show," Mr. Sugarman said. "What we have to do now is find another artistic and intelligent relation to follow the [sculpture's] lines. If we have to change things, life has to go on."

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